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Scholarly looks at Trafalgar and Waterloo

Trafalgar : The Biography of a Battle
by Roy Adkins

Truly a biography of this battle – a pivotal event in European history.

This seems to be the same book as the American Published one entitled “Trafalgar, a battle which changed the world” – which seems a much overblown title. I liked the “Biography of the battle” which was chosen for the British Edition as it more accurately describes exactly what this book is.

I would highly recommend this book to others who have not read much about sea battles of this period before. Adkins is enormously readable, his prose flows and is neatly interspersed with quotes of contemporaries both describing the battle, and everyday life where appropriate

The first part of the book is very much about the basics. There is a short introduction to Nelson’s colourful life and career, a lot about the life and times of a seaman, and much useful information about life onboard ship during this period, specifically what it was like to serve in the Navy of George III. It was easy to understand the hardships and deprivation when reading this including the shortage of good food – which was generally maggoty or mouldy or both, the smells from the lack of good sanitation, the terrible water which was unfiltered and stored in uncleaned barrels so that it soon became noxious and full of algae.

It was a hard life for anyone, and even Nelson did not touch land once for at least 2 years. The difference in life for officers and enlisted men was significant though. Conditions, food, clothing, position on board all played a significant role.

So the first part of this book sets the stage for the battle – it also dwells in excellent detail on the political situation, the pending Napoleonic invasion of Britain, the reaction, the blockades by British ships of French and Spanish ports, the lead up battles, such as that of the Nile, and so on.

The battle itself lasted but six hours, and is discussed almost cannon blow by cannon blow. It is a confusing battle but Adkins is very clear with his detail and makes it enormously interesting. The aftermath of the battle, the messengers attempts to get to London, and the ‘fruits’ of trafalgar make up the last chapters.

It is a thoughtful book, written, I believe, with an eye on the novice reader. I did not find that it talked-down to the reader though. Rather, it used the social and military information to compliment the build up of the battle, as a reminder to the context it was fought in.

There are extremely useful and easily referenced illustrations and some maps to help the reader.

Overall I loved this book and will be recommending it to others. Given that we have just passed the 200th anniversary of Trafalgar, it was published at a significant time and makes excellent reading.

Paperback, 416 pages (May 5, 2005)
Publisher: Abacus
ISBN: 0349116326
List Price: £8.99

Waterloo : June 18, 1815
The Battle for Modern Europe
by Andrew Roberts

This is not my favourite account of the battle of Waterloo, and Roberts nails his colours to the mast early on by acknowledging Peter Hofshroer (a revisionist of the first order) in his introduction. There are only so many sources of the battle and it is always a matter of reinterpreting what is said to be mistinterpreted in the first place.

The main problem is that because the allied forces won the battle and therefore wrote the final account (including, it seems, naming it) this must mean that there needs to be a reinterpretation of how it has been written. I don’t necessarily agree with this premise so maybe I am not the best person to read revisionist accounts with an open mind. However I definitely don’t believe that this account does revisionism any justice. For a short book it seems to have a number of unforgiveable errors in it.

I think for an original account, David Howarth’s book, Waterloo, Day of Battle is an excellent and very personal account of the event. I know that John Keegan argued in his book ‘Face of Battle’ that while Howarth’s book gives the best personal account of the battle there was still room for another account of the movements etc, I don’t believe Robert’s book really adds to the body of work available – either on the personal or the military.

The advantage is that it is a short and punchy book, you can read it in an afternoon without too much effort.

Paperback, 160 pages (January 2006)
Publisher: Harper Perennial
ISBN: 0060762152
Price: $14.93

Anne Woodley is an Amazon top 500 reviewer as well as the patroness of Janeites, the Internet discussion, as well as mistress of the Regency Ring. Her excellent page, The Regency Collection is a treasure trove of information.

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